PUT A RING ON IT
The engagement ring is burning a hole in Andrew’s pocket. That’s how it feels, like it’ll burn through the fabric and drop off into the dirty snow of the sidewalk, maybe roll into the sewer grate and disappear into the slurry below. And if that were to happen, how would he feel? He’d feel horrible. He loves Sarah. He wants to marry Sarah. But he can’t marry her with this ring. A ring too big for her perfect porcelain fingers. A big ring with a diamond too small. A ring he inherited from his mother.
Still. The ring’s like a loaded gun. He’s almost proposed five times in the last couple weeks. Part of him thinks, Just propose, you can get the ring resized, get a new diamond later. Before the wedding. Which won’t be for a year anyway. Oh, God, unless she wants to get married soon . . .
But no. He has to do this right. Her father thinks Andrew does everything half-ass. And her father means the world to her. Andrew has to make this a good show. The ring has to impress her, but more important, it has to impress her father. The problem: Even Sarah doesn’t know how bad Andrew’s got it right now. He’s got a good job at a brokerage here in Philly, but he’s thirty thousand in credit card debt. Not to mention the car loan. And the student loans from b-school and from grad school. And the rent. The gas bill. The trash bill. The this bill. The that bill.
He’s got a little money in his pocket but, really, he’s broke.
Which is why he’s out here now. In Kensington at quarter till eleven on a Wednesday night. Walking through a pissy wet snowfall—fat, clumpy flakes not drifting so much as plopping to the earth. His nice shoes white from the road salt. His socks wet from the slush.
Derek at work said, “You want a diamond cheap, I know a place.” Derek said, “It’s in Kensington.” and Andrew said, “Oh, hell no, Kenzo? Really?” He said that if he goes down there, he’ll get stabbed. Or strangled. “Isn’t the Kensington Strangler still around down there?” Derek just laughed. “That’s old news. Crime’s down. It’s fine. You want the diamond cheap, or you want to pay jewelry store prices?”
Andrew thought but did not say, “I want to pay jewelry store prices.”
He just can’t afford to.
And so, a pawn shop. Derek said, “It’s called K&P Moneyloan Pawn, except they don’t speak a lot of English and they misspelled Moneyloan so it says Moneylawn, so at least you’ll know you have the right place.”
Andrew thought he’d get there right after work, six, maybe seven o’clock. But suddenly the team of in-house lawyers demanded a new meeting at work, and meetings are like black holes: They eat up the hours, they suck in the light, they gorge on his productivity. Next thing he knew, it was past ten o’clock and he still had to get to Kensington.
The pawn shop was still open. Thank God.
The guy behind the counter— a guy Derek said was Indian (“Curry Indian, not Wounded Knee Indian”) but that Andrew thinks is Sri Lankan— showed him the diamonds and everything looked good; the prices were low enough he almost wondered if they were real, and there he had a small panic attack because wasn’t he supposed to remember something about the three Cs? Color, clarity, cut and . . . was there a fourth C?
Crap! Whatever. He’s no expert. Neither is Sarah. He picked a princess-cut diamond that looked—well, it looked pretty. It caught the light. It felt heavy. Sharp, too, like it could cut a hole in the storefront window.
So there he stood in a dingy, cracked-floor pawn shop, the too-bright fluorescents above humming and clicking, neon lights trapped between the pawn shop window and the big metal grate just inside the windows, and finally he managed to argue the little Sri Lankan man down to a price he could afford (a price less than half of what he’d pay anywhere else), and then he whipped out his Visa and—
“No credit card,” the little man said.
“I have a debit card—”
“No take, no take.”
“But that’s what I have.”
The little man pulled back the small cloth with the diamond on it. “Cash only. No diamond. Only cash. No diamond.”
So he asked, “Is there an ATM machine around?”
“Is just ATM,” the little man said. “No ATM machine. ATM mean Automated Teller Machine. You no need to say extra machine.”
This from a man whose store is named Moneylawn.
Andrew said fine, fine, just tell me where, and he thought—hoped—that the ATM was right across the street, but no, of course it wasn’t, it was three blocks up and four blocks over and now the sky is really flinging the glops of wet snow down on his head as if to punish him for his bad money management—
So now here he is. Hurrying along. To an ATM in the middle of Kensington. A neighborhood no longer in decline because it can’t decline any further—the car has already crashed, the wreck has already burned out.
Derelict storefronts. A lone pizza joint at the corner, still open. Eyes watching him from under a ratty overhang. Past an alley where a homeless guy in an overcoat sleeps in the shade of a dented Dumpster, using a blue tarp as a blanket. Someone yelling a block over— a Hispanic girl in a half-shirt and jeans, no jacket, no hat, bronze hair peppered with white flakes, and she’s screaming at some little thug in a leather jacket, saying something about sucking his dick, something about someone named Rosalita. The thug’s just laughing. Braying, even. Waving her off.
Andrew keeps his head down.
Turn around. Go home. The diamond will be there tomorrow.
No. Tomorrow is Saturday. He and Sarah are going to Wildwood Gardens. She loves that place. The orchid house. The Christmas lights. He’s going to ask her there. Do the whole thing: down on one knee, ring up, maybe in front of a crowd so they have that story to tell.
Just walk. Hurry up. You need to do this. Man up, Andrew. What would her father say?
Her father would say nothing. He’d just stare at Andrew with those dark gray eyes, eyes like bits of driveway gravel.
Ahead— a basketball court. Tall fences. Three courts lined up next to each other. He can shortcut the block, he thinks.
Footsteps. Behind him. Crossing the street. Splashing in slush.
He casts a quick glance over his shoulder.
A shadow following. Hands in pockets. Dark camo. Hood up.
His heart starts kicking.
He hurries forward. Half a short block to the basketball courts. His foot catches on an uneven sidewalk—he falls forward, just barely catches himself, but he takes the opportunity to shift into a brisk walk, almost a jog.
But the person behind him is coming up fast now.
Faster than he is. A swift step.
The person raises a gloved hand. Points a finger-gun at him.
The thumb-hammer falls.
Andrew hurries. Grabs the pole holding up the chain link leading into the basketball courts. He ducks in through the gate—
“Hey!” calls a voice.
A woman’s voice.
She knows his name?
Thud. Something hits him hard in the back.
A snowball. She hit him with a snowball.
He wheels. Holds up both hands, palms forward. “I don’t know who you are or what you want, but I don’t want any trouble—”
The woman hooks her thumbs around the hood, flips it back. It’s some white girl. She shakes free a shaggy ink-black pixie cut, the front bangs streaked with red. She stares at him from raccoon-dark eyes.
“You dumb shit,” she says, baring her teeth from behind a fishhook sneer. “What are you doing out here?”
“Wh . . . huh?”
She sighs as snow falls. “I don’t know why I’m yelling at you. I knew you’d be here. Isn’t that why I’m here?” She taps a cigarette out of a rumpled pack of Natural American Spirits. Cigarette between lips. Clink of a lighter. Flame in the winter. Blue smoke.
He coughs. Fans the smoke away.
“I gotta go,” he says.
“You don’t remember me,” she says. A statement, not a question.
“What? No I—” Wait. The way one she stares from under an arched and dubious brow. He knows that look. A look of unmitigated incredulity. A mean-girl look like she’s saying, You’d really wear those pants with that shirt? Sarah gives him that look sometimes. Her judgey face. “Yeah. Hold up. I remember you. From the bus.”
She gestures at him with the cigarette. “Got it in one.”
A year ago. On the SEPTA NiteOwl route home to University City.
His stomach suddenly drops out from under him.
“You . . . told me . . .” He tries to remember. He was tired that night. No. Drunk. He was drunk that night. Not black-out-and-wake-up-in-Jersey drunk, but drinks with Derek and the other brokers . . . Did Sarah yell at him that night? No. They were only just together then. Not even living with each other. They’d just met.
The woman vents smoke through her teeth. “You have a ring in your pocket. Left pocket, I think.”
His gaze darts down. His hand reflexively touches the pocket. There the ring is heavy. The One Ring, he thinks. On the way to Mordor. Absurd that he’s thinking about that. He doesn’t even like those books.
“How do you . . .” But then it all hits him. Ice breaking. Water rushing. The memory cold as the slap of the winter air.
On the bus. He’d seen her there before. Sitting in the back. Earbuds in. Then one day she came up to him. Sat behind him. Started talking. He’d had . . . what were they? A bunch of Long Island Iced Teas. How do they get them to taste so much like iced tea? They turned her into a smudgy blur, a Vaseline thumbprint on the lens of his life.
She just started talking. Like she couldn’t stop, like someone karate-kicked the spigot right off the sink—words spraying everywhere. She was amped, jacked up in the same way he was slowed down, and she told him—
You’re gonna die.
That’s what she said.
She knows about the ring now because she knew about it then. Didn’t she? She told him he’d have a ring in his pocket, and he said that was absurd. At the time he hadn’t even thought of marrying Sarah, but here he was, with a ring—his dead mother’s own engagement ring—there in his pocket, a modest little circle of white gold, too modest . . .
The girl gave him a date. Told him to “mark his calendar.”
Was tonight that date?
He doesn’t even realize he asked the question out loud.
“Yes. It’s tonight, genius.” You really should’ve written it down. I told you to write it down. I said, ‘Whip out your fancy smartphone and write it the fuck down.’ But did you? Mmm. No. You just puked on your shoes.” She suddenly pauses, as if in rumination. “Okay, maybe I should have waited till you weren’t drunk to give you the news, though at the time I thought it might soften the blow. I’d been watching you for days. I brushed by you on a Monday, didn’t tell you until Thursday.”
“You’re crazy,” he says, backpedaling.
“Be that as it may, Andrew, that doesn’t change what’s coming.”
He says it again—“You’re crazy”—because he can’t find any other words, because his brain is suddenly a snarl of sparking, rat-chewed wires, and he knows he’s being played. Conned, somehow. He takes a step back, turns— starts hurrying across the basketball court.
She’s after him. Like stink on a skunk.
“You’re processing this poorly,” she yells. “Totally normal, by the way. This was all kind of an experiment for me. I’ve run it again and again, and it always runs smack into the same dead end every time.” She clears her throat. “No pun intended until now. Hey. Slow down. Wait up.”
But he keeps hurrying.
“Get away,” he says.
“You’ve got an appointment to keep, huh? Running right toward the reaper’s bony hug. Fate, man. Fucking fate! See? I told you how it was going to shake out. I gave you all the details—the date, the ring, the ATM machine”—You no need to say extra machine—“and yet here you are, not walking but sprinting toward the cliff ’s edge. It’s like people want to die.”
“I’ll call the police.” He fumbles for his phone. He palms it, turns around while still walking backward and waves the phone at her like it’s a weapon. “I’ll do it. I’ll call 911!”
“Go ahead,” she says, stopping. She sucks on the cigarette. “Call them. I’ll wait. You call them, you might just save your own life, Andy.”
“Andrew. It’s Andrew.”
“Whatever. Ringy-ringy. 911.”
He holds the phone. Hand trembling.
He doesn’t call.
He doesn’t call because he doesn’t have the time. If he calls the police, they might actually show up. Then they’ll want to talk to him. Take a statement. But the pawn shop closes at midnight.
And midnight is fast approaching.
Instead, he takes out his house keys. He shoves keys through his fingers and forms a soft, clumsy fist.
He shakes the fist at her.
She laugh-snorts. “What is that?”
“I’ll hit you. It’ll . . . the keys, the keys’ll cut you.”
“Did you learn that in a movie?”
“In a defense class.”
“In a defense class for who? I didn’t know you were a middle-aged housewife, Andy. You cover it up well.”
“There it is. The anger. The resentment. Nobody likes being told they’re going to die. They struggle like a sparrow caught in a man’s hand. Flapping and scratching and pecking. You can fix this, Andy. Turn around. Go home. Whatever you’re doing out here in pissing distance of midnight, do it some other time.”
He kicks stones and slush at her. Like a child. He feels stupid for doing it but there it is; it’s already done.
“You’re a fucking lunatic!” he shouts at her.
The woman just shakes her head.
“Fine,” she says. “That’s the experiment, then. I’m calling it. Time of death: fifteen minutes. Go forth, spunky housewife, and meet your maker.”
She turns then. Pulls her hoodie back over her head. Flicks her cigarette off into the snow.
The woman recedes. A slow walk away.
She doesn’t look back. She’s done with him. Good.
He stands there for a little while. Shaking. He tells himself it’s just the cold. Sarah. The ring. The ATM. Midnight. Man up, Andy. Andrew! Andrew. Damnit. It’s like the woman’s insanity is contagious. Like she’s in his head, a spider spinning a web, catching flies. He lets out a plume of frozen breath.
Then he turns, hastens his step across the last two basketball courts.
Through an alley. Through puddles of dirty ice-mush.
There. Across the street, next to a small alley. Glowing bright, Superman red-and-blue: the ATM. Almost there, he thinks, as he darts across the empty street. Above, the sky glows Philadelphia Orange, a blasted burnt umber hue as if a chemical fire burns in the heavens.
Andrew digs out his card with cold-bitten hands, shoves it in the machine. He jumps through all the hoops. Presses all the buttons. Enters his PIN number— and suddenly he realizes it’s not a PIN number, it’s just a PIN, a Personal Identification Number, and the absurdity of yet another redundancy makes him laugh—
This is okay.
It’s all going to be fine.
The machine won’t let him take out more than two hundred dollars. He needs four times that amount. Damnit!
He stabs the button. Fine. It spits out two hundred.
Then he crams his card into the slot again.
It beeps. Tells him he’s taken out his “allotted transaction amount.”
“No no no,” he says, hand balling into a fist and pounding on the machine like he’s knocking on a door to be let in. “I need more than that! Please, c’mon.” But the machine keeps beeping its refusal. The two hundred will have to do. He’ll take it. He’ll . . . offer it as a deposit to hold the diamond until tomorrow. He’ll come back in the morning with more money and then it’ll all be fine—
“Yo, dude, step away from that box.”
His blood turns to snowmelt. His bowels to chilled vinegar.
“Come on, come on, turn around, turn around.”
Andrew—ten twenty-dollar bills clutched in his left hand—pivots slowly. He can barely breathe. He’s going to hyperventilate.
A lanky black kid stands there. Fifteen, sixteen years old. A gun almost too big for his hand hangs leveled at Andrew’s chest. The big poofy Eagles jacket makes him look like a parade balloon. His face is half-hidden behind a purple paisley handkerchief.
“I’m gonna take that money now, son,” the kid says, starting to reach.
Andrew instinctively pulls the money away—
Wham. The kid clips him across the chin with the side of the gun.
Teeth bite into tongue. He tastes blood. His neck is wet—first warm and wet, then cold.
The kid snatches the money out of Andrew’s hand.
The mugger laughs loud, like he’s not afraid of anyone hearing him out here. “You do not belong in this neighborhood, motherfucker. Shit, shit, look at you. Even in this fuck-ass snow your shoes still all shiny. Rich white people shoes are special shoes, I guess.”
“My . . . socks are wet.”
“Your socks are wet. Listen to this dude with his wet-ass socks.” Suddenly the kid yells in his face, eyes wide and white, “I don’t give a shit about your wet fuckin’ socks, I care about what’s in your fat fuckin’ pockets! You got more shit in there, I know you do, rich boy. So open them up and share the wealth. Let’s close the income disparity in America starting here, tonight, with you and me, motherfucker.”
“I . . . Okay, okay,” Andrew says, pulling his wallet and handing it over. He can lose that. He can even lose the two hundred. He can’t lose the ring. His hand instinctively presses against the flat of his pocket, as if to protect the gold, the diamond, Sarah’s love, the whole future.
“Whoa-whoa-whoa, what else you got there, rich boy? Hiding something in that pretty pocket? A present? For me?”
“Hey-hey-hey, no, it’s nothing, really—”
Wham. The kid lashes out again. This time Andrew holds his arms up, so the gun cracks him in the side of his hand. He pulls it away, crying out, and when he does, the kid nails him in the temple—
Next thing he knows, the sidewalk is rushing up to meet him—
Red freckles on white snow—
The world is lost in a screaming whine—
The gun in his face, the kid screaming.
He can’t even hear what the mugger is saying. He thinks suddenly, I can reason with this kid, I can make him understand, and he starts babbling about how he’s got a ring in his pocket, an engagement ring, and he needs it or Sarah won’t marry him, and his eyes are closed and he’s pleading, praying, spit and blood making his words sound sticky—
The gun barrel presses against his head.
The mugger yells, “Gimme that fuckin’ ring!”
Andrew thinks, It’s over. That crazy woman was right.
I’m a dead man.
He tilts his head.
Sees the blur of the gun. The length of the kid’s arm. The madness in the mugger’s eyes.
Then: movement in a whorl of snow.
An avenging angel. A knife-slash of black hair. Ends dyed in blood.
The girl from before, she steps out from the alley.
Her own gun up—
The kid never had a chance—
Blood mists from the side of the kid’s head.
He drops into the empty street. Blood pumping.